Saturday, March 06, 2010

Several Habits of Highly Effective Writers' Conferences: First Pages Sessions

I've attended a pretty good number of writers' conferences in nine years in the industry -- nineteen after last weekend, from Paris to the Poconos, Atlanta to western Washington. And as such, I've observed a lot of different ways of organizing certain types of sessions, and come up with the following list of what seem to me to be pretty good practices for first pages sessions . . . ones that benefit editors/agents and attendees alike. Later this week or next I'll post additional lists on Q&As and critiques. Other editors/agents and RAs are very welcome to chime in in the comments with their own experiences and tips.

First Pages

  • First pages should always be anonymous.
  • Since every writer seems to format his or her manuscript differently, ask attendees to send not the first page of their manuscript, but the first 300 words. That equals more or less one page of double-spaced text, and it means that poets and picture-book writers (whose work often leaves a lot more white space on the page) get the same amount of their work read as novelists or nonfiction specialists.
  • Ask writers to put the title, intended format (board book, picture book, MG novel, YA novel, PB / MG / YA nonfiction), and genre if applicable (basically, if it's historical, sci-fi/fantasy, or a mystery) at the top of their submission. This makes it MUCH easier for panelists to respond to the page according to the appropriate standards, rather than having to spend valuable time diagnosing the genre and going on from there.
  • This sounds wimpy, I know, but I often find my voice getting really, really scratchy in the course of a full day of speeches, critiques, and conversation. Thus it's very useful if someone from the conference can read the page submissions aloud, and then I (and all my fellow panelists) can save our voices for the responses and the other speaking we're doing.
  • If possible: Project each submission on a screen so all attendees can read along and see what particular lines, phrases, or other details panelists may be calling out.
  • If possible: Have a hard copy of all pages available for each panelist individually (particularly if the pages are being projected on a screen that we're sitting in front of and not facing). I find it very useful in my critiques to be able to look at the page itself, and we panelists certainly can pass the page in question back and forth -- but oh, the luxury of having pages of our own!
  • (In a totally ideal world, every audience member would have their own set of hard copies to make notes upon and then take home, but this is clearly problematic for environmental, organizational, and probably legal reasons, so it likely isn't feasible.)
  • If possible: Have a microphone available for each panelist individually likewise.
  • The Southern Breeze conference this weekend projected illustration samples on a screen for panelists' responses during the session. This was the first time I'd ever seen this done at an SCBWI conference, and it was a pretty neat way to include illustrators in First Pages.
  • Writers: If an editor or agent responds enthusiastically to your (anonymous) work, then I think it's OK to approach us afterward, identify yourself as the writer, and talk a little more about the project. If we respond negatively, you're likely not doing yourself any favors by identifying yourself as the author.
I really enjoy doing first pages sessions, which I admit is a little strange, since, as I've said before, it's sort of like being set an editorial oral exam: How quickly can you diagnose the literary quality and saleability of this manuscript? Go! But they're a great way for writers to get some solid stylistic tips; receive feedback on whether the first page, at least, is working; and hear all the different ways panelists can respond to a piece of literary art. Thanks for taking these ideas into account.


  1. Wow, I wish I could attend a Writer's conference and participate in the 'first pages' session. You made the process seem really interesting and fun, Cheryl. I could picture the atmosphere!


  2. Great suggestions to help those on the panel and those in the audience. It would really help us to see the text on the screen. Someone in the Michigan SCBWI suggested on our e-mail list that we try your suggestions next time. Hope we do.

  3. Patricia NesbittMarch 07, 2010 8:34 AM

    Thank you for this posting. All of your ideas are great and would certainly streamline the process, thus allowing more first pages to be read. It takes a lot of time cumulatively to keep passing back and forth one sheet of paper or a single microphone. I attend the Mid-South and Southern Breeze meetings. As an attendee, I always learn a tremendous amount from the first pages comments that I can then relate to my own work. Thanks for continuing to do this for writers. Maybe some day my first page will be read:)

  4. Having been on First Page panels at conferences before, I completely agree! These are good suggestions!

    PS - My voice gets scratchy, too. Totally not wimpy!

  5. I've been on several first pages panels, and I completely agree with your suggestions. Identifying the genre (picture book, middle grade, etc.) is a huge help--playing that guessing game just feels a little pointless.

  6. These are great requests. Would love to be able to see the first pages on a screen as well. So much better to absorb the information.

  7. As a picture book author, I appreciate bullet #2. - allowing for word count vs. 1st page). ("it means that poets and picture-book writers (whose work often leaves a lot more white space on the page) get the same amount of their work read as novelists.")